Rewards and Recognition: everyone’s a winner

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My high school and middle school experiences were pretty interesting. i went to schools that were extremely competitive. There were dozens of different incentive programs to reward winners. On the other side, if you didn’t win you didn’t count. Here ae a few of the details I remember.

1. Students with B averages or above for a quarter got cut periods, free drinks at lunch, free drinks at break, coupons good for free meals at McDonald’s, free admission to school events like dances and sporting events, early dismissal (an extra 5 minutes to get to the bus or head home), and study hall was optional (so you got to leave school an hour early).

2. My high school’s wall of achievement included everything from awards trophies for band, sports, math team, science olympiad, mock trial, newspaper awards, yearbook awards, 4-H awards, and anything where the school (or one of its representatives) may have received a trophy, plaque or certificate. There was also a plaque to recognize students with high SAT scores. This area also recognized national merit scholars and other similar academic achievements. Anything that could be measured and tracked with some sort of token made it to the wall of achievement.

3. A range of achievements were also recognized. Students would also get awards, and get recognized for having perfect attendance. Although the prizes didn’t include as much free stuff, you were still recognized and had a a few prizes. At the end of the year, anyone who was recognized for perfect attendance, academic achievement and a few other things during the course of the year would be rewarded with a trip to the beach at the end of the year. The great thing was this trip had a mix of students, not just the ones with the good grades.

4. The morning announcements only mentioned winners. This means if your team won, your results would be mentioned. If you lost, well you didn’t exist. The morning announcements would include sports scores, people who won the science contest, individuals winning 4-H contests, art contest winners. Well anything and everything. In the case of an individual reward, the person’s name and year would be mentioned. If you received a medal, pin or button, you were also encouraged to wear it the day after your event for the world to see.

So in a few ways this was a bit dysfunctional with such a huge emphasis on winning, but the nice thing was really that everyone was recognized for their contribution. Even if it was atypical. (There are a host of other interesting rules and regulations during my years, and perhaps I’ll share these later.)

I think every organization needs to find ways to reward every role in the organization. We typically judge performance by revenues or profits, but we don’t necessarily take time to dissect all of the people who contribute to the bottom line. Most larger organizations have a “gold club” or some other similar designation to recognize the top sales people, but how many recognize the top customer service and support people. The people that ensure 90% repeat business. Or the support person who superior service kept an account from defecting to the competition? Or how about rewarding operational excellence? The manufacturing person with zero defects? The quality control person who found dozens of critical issues that could have made it to the field and soiled your reputation? The shipping associate who handled the flood of end of quarter business and got the orders out before the close of the quarter, on time, with zero mistakes? Or the sales assistant who was a master appointment setter, setting up meetings with 10 of the 15 new accounts from the month? There are a host of people that contribute to the success of an organization, but not all are recognized for their essential contributions.

Excessive rewards and recognition of course make awards meaningless, but all employees appreciate being recognized for their achievements frequently. It is not always appropriate to publicly recognize contributions all the time, but recognizing employees regularly, on an individual basis go a long way towards improving morale and encouraging your team to work harder. At happy employees improve the bottom line. This minimal investment has a huge impact.

A side note: verbal or written recognition all the time doesn’t cut it. The rewards should include a mix of things: lunches, notes in the personnel file, small tokens of appreciation and of course cash incentives. The most effective a small token, that is personalized to the individual. If someone is a gourmet coffee lover, a bag of premium beans from a local roaster, for a sports fan: tickets to their favorite team, spa coupons for the busy over stressed worker with a few extra hours of PTO to use it. With these little gifts, include a handwritten personal note (or a thank you card); this takes a bit more time but is 100X more meaningful.

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